Fossil Creek runs free now, no longer harnessed to a hydroelectric plant as it was from 1908 to 2005.
© Lynn Sankey
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Forest Road 708Although the views along this rocky road are impressive, the best part is Fossil Creek, one of only two Wild and Scenic Rivers in Arizona.
By Roger Naylor
Ever watch an old movie where explorers stumble upon a lost world? They're trekking through brutal terrain and suddenly discover an exotic, hidden oasis that teems with wildlife, usually prehistoric creatures long thought extinct.
That plotline pretty much sums up the drive to Fossil Creek — without the prehistoric fantasy. Although, sitting creekside beneath a rainforest-like canopy of shade, gazing at water that's the color of a leprechaun's eyes, a lumbering dinosaur wouldn't really seem out of place.
The road to Fossil Creek, Forest Road 708, begins in scrubby grasslands east of Camp Verde amid a cluster of sun-bitten hills. The rocky, unpaved route can be managed in a sedan, but you'll be much more comfortable in a pickup truck or an SUV. Dropping quickly into the backcountry, the road clings to the high shoulder of angular cliffs before swooping to the canyon bottom.
You'll reach the verdant slash of Fossil Creek at 13.8 miles. More than 30 million gallons of water gush from underground springs each day. For most of the past century — since 1908 — that furious flow was harnessed to feed Arizona's first hydroelectric plants.
Then, in 2005, a crazy thing happened: The power plants were shuttered, the dam was decommissioned and the flumes were dismantled. All exotic fish were removed, the pools were restocked with native species and the stream was allowed to run free.
Today, a lush corridor slices through the heart of unrepentant desert. The spring water, rich in calcium carbonate, creates a layer cake of travertine. The fossil-like rock growth forms terraces, leading to a series of waterfalls, cataracts and deep pools of liquid turquoise. Ethereal and magical, restored and rowdy, Fossil Creek was designated a Wild and Scenic River by Congress in 2009, one of only two such waterways in Arizona. It's often considered the most diverse riparian habitat in the state.
Immediately upon reaching the stream, Forest Road 502 branches off from FR 708, leading to a campground on the banks of the Verde River. Hot springs can be found about a mile west of the campground, but consider yourself warned: Despite the "No Nudity" warning signs, not everyone keeps their drawers on.
Back on FR 708, the road continues upstream and crosses Fossil Creek Bridge. The gentle upward tilt of the road soon sharpens dramatically as it climbs out of the canyon to the hamlet of Strawberry, perched atop the Mogollon Rim. Expect a steep, narrow ascent with sheer drop-offs. It might be gut-wrenching for those with a fear of heights, but if lost worlds were easy to reach, they wouldn't have gotten lost in the first place.
Tour Guideclick to expand
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 26 miles one way
Directions: From Camp Verde, drive north on Interstate 17 to State Route 260 and turn right. Drive east on SR 260 for 10 miles (just past Milepost 228) to Forest Road 708 and turn right.
Vehicle Requirements: FR 708 is steep, winding and narrow, but it's generally accessible to all vehicles. Do not attempt the road in wet conditions. A high-clearance vehicle is required for Forest Road 502.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don't travel alone, and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Travelers in Arizona can visit www.az511.gov or dial 511 to get information on road closures, construction, delays, weather and more.